I’ve always loved to travel and I’ve always loved to write. And together, the two seem to be a simple recipe for almost-guaranteed publishing success. But, as with most things in life, it’s not that easy!
Imagine you have an exotic and unique yarn– you’re so excited about it and you know that whatever you create is going to be something that no one else has… but what if your garment turns out to be lovely but unwearable? It’s no good if the sweater of your dreams ends up being little more than a scarf for days when you’ll put just about any piece of fabric around your neck to stay warm.
It’s worth far more to create an amazing sweater from the most ordinary wool, than something with ill-fitting from a spectacular yarn.
And it’s the same when it comes to weaving travel into your fiction writing
I’ve learned the hard way that your novel needs to be able to stand strongly alone, without the travel bits, if it’s to be any good.
With the first draft of West of Wawa, I did it all back-to-front. I thought that the protagonist’s journey would be the thing that gripped readers from start to finish. But then, when the character was pronounced as ‘vacuous’, a comment which cut deeply, I stepped back from the book and looked at it, stripping it bare of the travel content and asking myself if the character stood up to scrutiny at all and the answer was a resounding no. She wasn’t even interesting enough for a lukewarm short story.
I decided to approach the whole thing from a different angle. I stopped thinking about the travel side of things and focused on creating a story about a young woman who faces all kinds of trials and tribulations. I created a huge amount of back story to her life, most of which never made it to the printed page. But I had figured her out in total, I knew with certainty what made her tick and that’s what made her believable in the book.
Once I had my character nicely fleshed out, only then did I plot and plan her story, paying careful attention to the classic architecture of the novel. She had peaks and valleys, plot points one and two and all the rest.
And then, only then, were the travel bit woven in.
Benny, without the travel, was worthy of a story on her own. But the travel, without Benny, wasn’t worth a fig. And then, Benny AND the travel became magical in a way, something special.
I’m currently working on my third novel, a murder mystery. I’m using a trip that I took several years ago, to Namibia, as the setting for the story. But this time I thought about things much more carefully upfront and I started with the main story, asking myself if it could stand alone. I interrogated the characters and their relationships, and only then did I weave in the travel.
Of course, I made a whole bunch of new mistakes this time! I had too many characters, too much detail of their lives and too many stories in the one novel!
I had enough stories for three novels; so worried was I that the story wouldn’t stand by itself.
Hence my current project, the rewriting and editing of the murder mystery. I’ve cut 33 000 words already by pruning little asides that, while interesting, bring no value to the core story.
But that’s the joy of writing – that there’s always something new to learn! One other temptation with travel writing, is to include too many fascinating facts that one comes across while doing research about a region. You have to learn to be really ruthless; after all you’re writing a fiction novel and you’re spinning a good tale, not giving a history less.
I hope that this blog post helps others avoid the pitfalls and potholes that I fell into, but most of all, let’s never forget that being on the journey is the best gift of all.